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Skip or symphony

Skip or symphony
This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Hidden gems

Lately, I’ve been noticing differences between approaches to the Yi. We might describe what we do in the same words – we all ‘consult the oracle’ – but what actually happens next is not at all the same thing. And I think these differences come down to how we conceive of the oracle we’re consulting.

What is the Yijing, anyway?

The Yijing is (not) a skip

For some, I think it’s basically a skip. You can tell, because their readings are like dumpster diving. Look into the depths of the skip with something in mind – maybe you want to build some raised beds and paths in your garden. And then the magic happens: you see what you need! Some lumber, or some paving slabs, or some crates you could take apart and reuse. Perfect!

Obviously, you will ignore most of the skip’s contents, as most of it won’t be relevant to you. You won’t climb into the skip to meditate on its contents; you won’t spend time contemplating the broken TV or that very dodgy-looking sofa, trying to understand why they’re there or how they’re meant to fit into your gardening plans. That would be ridiculous. It’s a skip – full of stuff that got chucked in at random – so the skill is to be able to see what you need. Learn that skill, and the skip-Yi becomes a really useful tool.


Yi for me is… harder to describe. Here are two stories to give you an idea.

It’s an ecosystem

As a teenager on my way to visit my great uncle Bill, I saw a field covered in starlings, with house martins darting to and fro above them. I watched this for a while, with no idea what was going on. Happily, I could ask Bill, who explained that the cranefly larvae were emerging. The starlings feasted on them on the ground, and the martins snatched them out of the air.

The birds were gathering for a reason, whether I understood it or not. Everything is connected. Bill was a naturalist who had loved, watched and learned from the countryside around him all his life, and so he could see what was there.

It’s a symphony

Elgar was a great symphonist – not just for his melodies, harmonies and musical architecture, but especially for his orchestration: a real musician’s musician, who understood orchestras and how they work from the inside. So his music is exquisitely well orchestrated: everything is idiomatic; everything is clear.

And yet a bright young thing was able to point out to Elgar where he’d slipped up: he’d written an entry for a woodwind player that was going to be completely inaudible – utterly drowned out by the rest of the orchestra.

Elgar simply pointed to what came next: a big solo for that same player. He’d written the inaudible entry to give them a chance to warm up.

Every note of the symphony is there for a reason, because the composer knew what he was doing. If each musician pays careful attention, gives all their skill to playing everything he wrote, the audience will hear something beautiful.

For example…?

Of course, it’s no use just to make blanket assertions about what the Yijing is. We need some examples – and I’ll be posting about some of my favourites over the next few weeks.

photo of a full skip with dark forest in the background

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